The lost promise of nostalgia: What modern pop culture gets wrong

The history of nostalgia reveals so much more than what we see on "Mad Men." Why does Hollywood get it so wrong?

Published March 16, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm of "Mad Men"                    (AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)
Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" (AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)

Of all the photographs in the old album, this is the one I return to again and again: My mother at the age of 11, hugging her dog on a cold snowbank, a ghostly winter tree behind her. A whiteout after a blizzard, made whiter by the fading of the image, while, on the print itself, pink stains the lower right section. I carefully remove the photo from the album, releasing it from the little corner clips that hold it in place, lifting it away from its handwritten caption to see that there is nothing written on the reverse of the photograph. Looking closer, I note signs of scratches from the negative, and faint traces of squiggly writing next to the pink stain, a list of numbers as far as I can tell. Someone must have scribbled a bit of arithmetic on a piece of paper accidentally laid over the picture, leaving an impression on the print.

Shirley and Pal, Christmas Day, 1930These flaws and traces, like outward signs of age, pull us to the surface and make our reading of the picture an act of detection, a forensic investigation of the life of the print itself. Where has it been, who held it or tampered with it, who placed it in the old album and gave it a caption, what do the near-invisible numbers refer to, what caused the stains? How did it come into my hands, by what chain of family historical conveyance, and where will it go after me? Will I be the last person to care about it? This seems likely.

The picture is a glance at the remote history -- frozen for a moment on a snowy holiday -- of a strange girl who would one day be our mother. Here she is in the last days of childhood, when her name was Shirley Granger. A name we never knew her by, a Shirley we never met, her Louise Brooks haircut, her face turned away from us, our not-yet-ness in her life story, the greater importance and comfort of Pal -- a dog from another century, a Christmas and a snowfall years before the birth of her three children. Sometimes while looking at this picture, I am brushed by a feather of guilt at my own arrival. To look is to violate her claim to a life before me, a private moment with her dog, her right to childhood, play in the snow, the chance of free time before marriage and motherhood.

Middleville, her hometown, remains outside the frame of the photograph, but it presses on the scene, as hometowns are wont to do. I don’t know Middleville; it is not my hometown. I visited it only a handful of times during my own childhood, yet each time I look at the photograph, the suggestion of the town is there, a memory so powerful in my parents and grandparents that it passed into me, a sense of place so instinctively familiar that I suffer something akin to a bout of homesickness. Can we be homesick for places that are not our home? The feeling may be partly explained by the strong presence of my mother in this particular photograph, yet it stalks me when I leaf through the other pages in the album, seeing not only pictures of my mother and her family, but river scenes, farmhouses, empty roads, an old gas station.

I have long held that ancestral memory colonizes not only our bodies, but our bodies in place. We know that our ancestors inhabit our natural shapes, movements and gestures, the colors of our eyes and hair, the way our skins weather in the sun or cold, the tiniest inflections in our voices. But we are sometimes more surprised to discover the impact of ancestral places, often places unknown to us, on our moods and emotions. A visit to a previously unknown, old family street corner can make us giddy or melancholy; walking along the sidewalk, we feel the dent of earlier footsteps, of histories before our time leaving a residue on the surface of things and inside us. Or there is the power of a house that remains in a family for two or three generations, of its rooms and stairs and front porch. There are people in whom lineal and place memory are so subtly registered that even as children they sense the trace of dead ancestors in that house, and then decades later from their own last beds in other, newer houses, recall the somber-hued textures of the old house, now sold and gone. It seems we carry, perhaps more than is commonly acknowledged, sense memories of people and places we may not have known directly in our own lives. Is this, too, a form of homesickness?

If the photograph of my mother with her dog proves especially affecting, nearly all of the photographs in the old album provoke this displaced homesickness in me, a familiar longing that compels me to look and look. Simultaneously painful and pleasurable, my longing might once have been described, and with some accuracy, as nostalgia.

Yet the word fails me now; it fails all of us. It continues to enjoy great currency, yet it fails to provide an explanation for this particular experience of memory, the longing that comes to so many of us when we are confronted by our old photographs and artifacts, our old places, or even places and people that we never knew directly. We are left without an adequate explanation and often without a productive way forward, a way to use our longing for the past as a helpful tool in the present. And so my looking at the picture of my mother in turn reignites an earlier preoccupation with the changing meanings and uses of nostalgia.

“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”

We still smile when we hear this line, usually attributed to Yogi Berra, but we forget the literal truth of the remark.  Nostalgia has indeed changed beyond recognition, until we no longer know what to do with it.  If we look up nostalgia in any standard dictionary, we find something like the following, taken from the World English Dictionary:

  1. A yearning for the return of past circumstances, events, etc.
  2. The evocation of this emotion, as in a book, film, etc.
  3. Longing for home or family; homesickness

Many of us now derive pleasure in popular forms of nostalgia, actively seeking out films, music, memorabilia that allow us to swim in its waters; then some of us work very hard to dry ourselves off and break free from what we see as crass and backward-looking sentimentality. This latter view of nostalgia has gained acceptance, as a brief look in any thesaurus will illustrate. Suggested synonyms for the word include not only sentimentalism, but mawkishness, maudlinism, melodramatics, mushiness – a host of "m" words to make the whole idea quite unappealing.

Further to these immediate uses, nostalgia has featured in postmodern theorizing in the fields of history, sociology and related academic disciplines, where again, it has regularly been viewed as retrograde and politically unproductive. In the field of psychology, discussions of nostalgia come and go on the tides of scholarly fascination. The recent formation of a Nostalgia Research Group in the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at the University of Southampton suggests the latest stirring of research interest in the topic. Yet in all these varying definitions and interpretations, there is only the occasional reminder that nostalgia started out as a medical problem, a term coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in his “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia” published circa 1688.

Hofer’s piece was a short but detailed investigation of a malady he characterized as “the sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.” While allowing that notions of homesickness, the German word heimweh and the French mal du pays all went some way to defining what was in fact, a disease, Hofer argued that a medical name, an agreed set of symptoms and effective treatments were required. After briefly considering the terms nosomania and philopatridomania, Hofer settled on nostalgia – “Greek in origin and indeed composed of two sounds, the one of which is Nosos, return to the native land; the other, Algos, signifies suffering or grief.”

According to Hofer, nostalgia was a disease of an “afflicted imagination” that regularly resulted in death. In its early stages, nostalgia manifested as a general melancholy accompanied by obsessive thoughts and recurrent images of one’s homeland. This caused a “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling.” The increase in activity through the nerve channels where memories of home were stored resulted in decreased blood flow to the other regions of the brain. So in a self-perpetuating course of illness, the obsessive thoughts would worsen, while interest in one’s own physical well-being and current surroundings would diminish. As the disease progressed, diagnostic signs included sadness and anxiety, “frequent sighs,” disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, poor blood circulation, heart palpitations, and fevers.  Finally, declared Hofer, “by consuming the spirits… it (nostalgia) hastens death.”

This is hardly the nostalgia we recognize today. What happened to the term "nostalgia" during the subsequent three centuries to alter it beyond recognition? Where is nostalgia the pathology, the set of symptoms in need of diagnosis and treatment? And finally, what might happen if we brought it back, if we countered baseball’s cracker-barrel philosopher by making nostalgia something of what it used to be?

For the first two centuries following Hofer’s dissertation, nostalgia remained a medical concern, although the discourses surrounding it began to change. In physicians’ writings, the understanding of nostalgia crept beyond the immediate physical complications of homesickness, to include pathological, spiritual pining for the vanished past. The typical sufferer of nostalgia, a student, soldier or other exile, experienced symptoms that belied a profound confusion between home as a physical, geographical place and home as a remembered, imagined place. People afflicted with nostalgia might see ghosts, hear the voices of dead loved ones, shift from past to present without being aware of it, or even lose the ability to distinguish between the two.

This link between nostalgia and memory was identified early and most evocatively by Immanuel Kant in his "Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View" (1798). Kant noted that when homesick people revisit the places of their youth, “they are greatly disappointed in their expectations and so cured. Though they think this is because everything has changed there, it is really because they cannot relive their youth there.” Kant’s point can be read as an anticipation of the widening of nostalgia’s meaning and its symptoms. A century after Hofer’s work, homesickness had morphed into a malady of both space and time, an affliction that had its origins in the normally healthy attachments a person holds for remembered people and places, for cherished objects, distant events, and even for the sense memories that would later be rendered by Proust. An image or a piece of music, a voice, a taste, a texture, or smell -- all of these might have potent effects on the "nostalgiac." Yet if nostalgia had become more complex as a malady, if it began to incorporate permutations to do more directly with memory and the passage of time, it remained a malady. At least until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, nostalgia would be considered an affliction to be diagnosed and treated by physicians.

The diagnostic challenge was to spot an imminent attack of nostalgia in the victim’s descent from healthy remembering into illness. In the century before Freud and Breuer and the invention of the "talking cure,"  treatments included purging, sweet wine, opium, restorative sojourns in the mountains and the avoidance of affective images or musical strains. Increasingly, nostalgia came to be associated with military experience, with French physicians recording its frequent appearance in soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. In the field, it was contagious and sometimes occurred as epidemics among the troops, manifesting itself in cases of fever, loss of appetite, unstoppable sobbing and a fear of falling asleep.

In an excellent brief history of nostalgia, historian of psychiatry Ed Brown found that medical interest in nostalgia increased during the early decades of the 19th century, with most physicians agreeing that the origins of the disease resided in the “first affective connections to people and places in the child’s world.” Brown noted that the symptoms of nostalgia resembled those of melancholia, but nostalgia continued to be seen as a separate affliction because of the “specificity of its object and the rapidity with which it developed.” Moreover, nostalgia continued to be viewed as a disorder that was potentially fatal, and one that left discernible organic, post-mortem changes in its victims.

During the American Civil War, doctors diagnosed more than 5,000 cases of nostalgia on the Union side alone, a number of them reported at the time to have ended in death. In 1863, Doctor Dewitt C. Peters, an assistant surgeon, provided a detailed list of its symptoms and progression:

First, great mental dejection, loss of appetite, indifference to external influences, irregular action of the bowels, and slight hectic fever. As the disease progresses, it is attended by hysterical weeping, a dull pain in the head, throbbing of the temporal arteries, anxious expression of the face, watchfulness, incontinence of urine, spermatorrhea, increased hectic fever, and a general wasting of all the vital powers.

In some military camps, measures were taken to limit nostalgia-inducing activities such as writing letters home; camp bands, for example, might be instructed not to play suggestive musical pieces like "Home! Sweet Home!" Individual treatments varied from the granting of brief periods of convalescence to the infliction of physical punishment or a swift return to battle, for what some officers considered to be malingering. In retrospect, it might be argued that nostalgia, as it was understood in the military context of the day, was a variant and precursor of what would later be termed shell shock or soldier’s heart in the First World War, battle fatigue in the Second World War, and post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam.

After the Civil War, medical interest in nostalgia declined, as did the number of recorded cases. Observers at the time believed that better hygiene and education helped people to fight the ailment, while Brown notes that advances in transport and communications such as steam engines, a faster mail service and telegraph lines promised to prevent the kinds of extreme separations that seemed to trigger outbreaks of acute nostalgia. Moreover, physicians had become excited by the study of hysteria, a promising and newly fashionable disorder.

It would seem, then, that during the late 19th century, and continuing throughout the 20th, while humanity busied itself with railways and ticker tapes, advanced weaponry, war, stocks and shares, advertising, buying on credit, moon landings and oil prices, nostalgia gradually lost its status as a medical term and disappeared from the professional literature. Johannes Hofer and his treatise were left behind in the dark ages before Freud. But is it remotely possible that in his seminal "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917), Freud passed up what may have been a last opportunity to rescue the lost affliction from obscurity? Here, nostalgia and homesickness might have been reinvented for the age of the “talking cure,” restored to a rightful place in our individual and collective experiences of memory and loss, in the pathology of melancholy and the psychology of mourning.

In the decades following the birth of psychoanalysis, and especially during the fifties -- when Freudian theory was, in its own turn, sometimes crassly popularized -- the historical meanings and usages associated with nostalgia were finally mangled beyond recognition until its chief purpose became the performance of sentimentalism, the parceling out of discount memory via television, advertising, heritage theme parks, and souvenir markets, all aspects of what we might call the "nostalgia industry." As such, nostalgia became kitsch, trivial and reactionary: hardly the stuff of a meaningful engagement with the past or the workings of memory. Today, if we search the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of much of the psychiatric profession, now in its fifth edition, we find no mention of nostalgia.

This may not be an altogether negative outcome for nostalgia. Indeed, as a historian and not a psychiatrist, I see no benefit in returning nostalgia to the DSM or to current discourses of medicine or psychology, especially if that means rigid sets of quantifiable symptoms, diagnostic tools or treatments. As early as 1875, French physician Charles Lasegue had signaled the eventual demedicalization of the term, declaring that, as nostalgia lacked any “pathological unity,” perhaps it had always been more of a medical fantasy than a disease. “Mal du pays,” Lasegue wrote, “has more to do with poetic elegies than with medical descriptions.”

Yet I remain stubbornly nostalgic for nostalgia the ailment -- or shall we say, condition. A condition that, with or without a proven pathological base or unity, may still be experienced as Johannes Hofer first described it: as an “afflicted imagination.” A condition that, precisely because it is poetic and elegiac, makes history itself the stuff of life experience. A condition that speaks to each person’s unsung passages in time and space, recognizing the intense meanings we attach to home, childhood, family, ancestry and place. Like it or not, nostalgia attends us -- in our leave-takings and returns, our weathering of continuity and change, and our inevitable losses. For all these reasons, and more specifically because it is about the strange entanglements of history and memory, nostalgia should be as interesting to historians as to psychologists and sociologists.

We might all ask what became of its sufferers when nostalgia ceased to be a recognized illness. My suspicion is that the world is full of what we used to describe as nostalgia cases. They live in towns and cities, loosely strung like blinking Christmas lights; there may be acute cases, triggered by life events involving loss, grief, and trauma, but there may also be chronic cases, people constitutionally predisposed to an obsessive attachment to the past. Like the melancholics and hysterics who succeeded them, their symptoms have been subsumed under new diagnostic categories. This is not to say that people suffering from nostalgia cannot find help. Most therapy deals with memory as a matter of course. However, this particular experience of memory – still so widespread – has lost it place in the treatment rooms. And so this leaves us searching for places to speak about it, and constructive ways in which to use it.

Finally, nostalgia may assume collective and highly political form, affecting entire groups of people at particular historical conjunctures. Certainly most political players know how to tap their citizens’ nostalgic longings in order to gain support for backward-looking and often deeply conservative policies. Tea Party activists regularly conjure highly emotive narratives of an idealized American past that never really existed, one that effectively erases our historical social, race and gender inequalities. In these narratives, nostalgia becomes a shorthand for "the past is better, and we should follow those who promise to return us there." So if we are to use nostalgia productively, we need to understand its political potency, and utilize it to engage our individual and collective pasts -- good or bad -- in the present. And we need to know when it is best to leave the past behind.

There are discernable stirrings of renewed interest in nostalgia. In the last few years, and more immediately since the start of 2014, a number of short newspaper articles have noted this interest, some of them reexamining nostalgia for its more productive possibilities. No doubt the nostalgia research unit at Southampton University will be a project to follow, and the website already lists a number of promising publications and academic collaborations. However, the Southampton Nostalgia Scale, a questionnaire that also appears on the website, seems less promising, and my strong suggestion is that we do not leave nostalgia to the psychologists or to quantitative research. It’s an interdisciplinary problem that will benefit from collaborations across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. And more importantly, it has a vibrant life beyond the academy, in art, culture and our everyday lives.

Nostalgia has a lost history that might be recovered in order to move forward. If it once made us sick; might it sometimes make us better? After all, what Hofer really described was a manifestation of our all-too-human predilection for longing. More specifically, our longing for connection. We want something larger than ourselves and before ourselves, a chance to contemplate our irrecoverable past times, people and places, some directly remembered, some only traces felt when we enter the old rooms and houses, the old photo albums, the historical debris of those long gone. If our nostalgic longings might be reconceived as memory with its critical healing powers restored, in other words, as the working through of what we have lost, then nostalgia may yet prove a condition worth having.

Amy Kenyon is Visiting Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of "Dreaming Suburbia" (Wayne State University Press). Her first novel, Ford Road, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012.

By Amy Kenyon

MORE FROM Amy Kenyon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks History Kitsch Mad Men Nostalgia Pop Culture Sociology